Ahead of this years Cash Back (Songs I Learned from Johnny), Dean Owens kindly took some time out to do a Q & A interview with us
1. Cash Back (Songs I Learned from Johnny), your one night only show (along with some other Celtabilly musicians) at The New Town Theatre (Venue 7) on August 16th is going to be a mixture of songs inspired, written or covered by Johnny Cash. There is often a very strong country music core to your music; was Johnny Cash always there somewhere in your own music just waiting to come out in a show like this?
I think he probably was there, but I wasn’t aware of it until well into my music career. I didn’t really, truly fall in love with his music until the first American Recordings album. Then I worked my way back and realised how much I knew and liked, but had taken for granted. He really was a great singer-songwriter.
2. Johnny Cash was born in Arkansas and recorded much of his music in Nashville. You come from Leith and record a lot of your music in Nashville. What do you think it is that bridges the culture gap so easily for you and makes Johnny Cash and country music resonate so much with you and your music?
It’s because it’s real. Anything that has a lot of soul and spirit is always going to get to me. Also it’s his voice. It can break your heart. Johnny’s music came from his roots in Arkansas via Nashville and my music comes from my roots in Leith via Nashville.
3. For me, Johnny Cash is one of those artists who I think I am not too familiar with for much of his back catalogue, but as soon as I go to any show using his music I just discover that I know so many of his songs without even realising it. Did you have that feeling of the music always being with you too as you prepare for this show?
Yes, very much so. His music is there in the ether.
4. Like your own music, there is a basic honesty to songs that Johnny Cash wrote and also a lot of humour at times in them, although some of that humour can be very dark at times. Is there maybe a little bit more of the spirit of Johnny Cash in Dean Owens than we realise?
He’s definitely influenced me a lot. Especially as I get older. There’s a simplicity in his writing that I love. It’s the same reason I like writers like John Lennon and Hank Williams. They can say a lot with just two or three verses.
5. For myself, Johnny Cash will always be one of the great rock’n’roll music pioneers as well as one of the great country musicians as I always see Rock’n’Roll, Rockabilly and Country music like railroad tracks crossing over into one another along the way. Do you think that the importance of Johnny Cash in the formative years of Rock’n’Roll has been a bit overlooked by many in favour of his success as a country singer/songwriter?
Maybe, but I think he gets the recognition. If anyone can’t recognise his importance in the rock’n’roll story then they’re an idiot.
6. Many rock’n’roll pioneers had their early music firmly in country – Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly (when he was with Bob Montgomery) come immediately to mind. Is there a point in his music where you can see Johnny Cash clearly deciding to keep to his country music style and not become a rock’n’roll singer?
I honestly think he was a man of songs rather than style. He was the master at taking any song and making it sound like he’d written it. In a way that’s what this show is about. There have been many songs that I was convinced had been written by him that turned out to be written by someone else.
7. One of the songs on your “Cash Back” album is “The Night Johnny Cash Played San Quentin” and it continues in a way a story from that famous concert. Do you feel that the “Cash Back” show itself is in someway continuing the musical legacy of Johnny Cash and the many outstanding writers, musicians and producers that he worked with over the many years of his long career?
I’m not sure it’s that grand an idea. It’s just a simple nod to a great artist and some great songs. I’m not trying to bang anyone over the head with a Johnny Cash stick. Though maybe I should get a Johnny Cash stick made. Be great for dealing with hecklers!
8. You did a show at last year’s Fringe (and released an album) - Settin' the Woods on Fire - The songs of Hank Williams. Do you find as a performer their music to have different approaches to telling a story through song? To me Johnny Cash, despite his sometimes sombre appearance and nickname of “The Man In Black”, often seemed to have a smile on his face and a more tongue in cheek approach to some of his music.
There’s definitely a strong link between those two artists in their delivery. You certainly wouldn’t have got Johnny without Hank. They’re both Southern men who grew up in tough times, surrounded by personal tragedy. And of course drug and alcohol addiction. There’s a lot of humour and sadness in their music. It’s very raw songwriting. There’s no frills on it.
9. Religion was important to Johnny Cash throughout his life, and his personal devotion to his church and his beliefs have been well documented. Like many performers from his time, there is often a very strong church/gospel element to his music. Do you find that through some of this music you get a little closer to the beliefs and soul of the man himself maybe?
He had his beliefs and I have mine. I like a lot of the old spiritual and religious songs, but only from the music side of it. There’s some great tunes and a true, pure spirit to a lot of those old songs.
10. Any time that I have watched a show using the music of Johnny Cash it doesn’t seem to matter what the song is, how happy or sad it is, everyone playing on stage just seems to be having so much fun with the music. Do you find that yourself and with the band when you play these songs together?
Well I get the chance to play all these songs so rarely that of course it’s great fun to play them. It’s a great setlist to work from. I do try and play them my way, but at the same time not mess with them too much. These songs aren’t broken so why try to fix them.
11. There seems to be an instinctive understanding of country music in Scotland. Why do you think that is? Some people have quoted similar economic hardships experienced by working class people as a common theme. Do you think there is any truth in that?
I think that’s fair to say. You have to remember that Country music comes from bluegrass and mountain music, which came from old Scots/Irish folk songs so there’s a real thread there. Also on a really basic level Scottish men generally love old Cowboy movies so that’s in the relation with Country music too.
12. Nobody writes music that can pull at the emotional heartstrings of love and loss quite the way that country music writers can. Are these universal emotions maybe what make country music so universal no matter where in the world you are listening to it?
Good Country songs are so universally loved because they are about everyday subject matters and emotions. Love, loss, death, heartbreak and good times. I think it’s the music of the common man and woman.
A big thank you to Dean Owens for taking the time out to answer these questions
Interview by Tom King
Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017 Cash Back (Songs I Learned from Johnny) New Town Theatre (Venue 7) Wednesday 16th August
REVIEW COMING SOON